What do All Viral Campaigns Have in Common? The Answer May Surprise You.

What do All Viral Campaigns Have in Common? The Answer May Surprise You.

Viral marketing is a myth. Though not in the way that I imagine you think I mean.

A lot of research and statistical analysis goes into creating viral ad campaigns, so I would argue that virality is not a falsely held idea. Recent campaigns that have gone viral would prove otherwise as well.

On the other hand, what I do believe is a falsely held idea is that virality can be predicted, or that there is a “formula” for virality. There are a number of recent campaigns have gone viral without all of the planning and research that goes into other campaigns.

A recent example of this includes the ‘Strangers Kissing’ video that gained 7 million views soon after it was released (it’s now up to 94 million views). However, the intention of this video was not for it to go viral. In fact, clothing company Wren’s founder Melissa Coker explained that the intention was not to make a viral video:

“We make these fashion films every season,” Coker said. “I strive to make them an interesting film that exists on its own rather than something that feels like a commercial, and it seems to be touching people…”

Rather, viral marketing is a myth in the traditional sense of the word: it is a story explaining a social phenomenon. To be truly successful in viral marketing the content must provide a narrative that elicits emotions, answers questions or deals with the social zeitgeist.

The science of emotions has postulated that there are a handful of basic emotions that humans are capable of.

The range of emotion in fact come from the combinations of the these emotions. Robert Plutchik created a wheel of emotions that shows us how these emotions combine together to create multiple layers of emotion.

I think that rather than talking about ‘viral’ marketing, we should be discussing emotion marketing, and that campaigns should aim to appeal to certain emotions. There are some that we know are more likely to go viral than others, but what we do know is that any strongly elicited emotion will work.


Happiness is actually the first emotional action a human makes. Not only that, but it is a shared emotion – we respond to our mother’s smile with a smile of our own. Indeed, happiness makes us want to share, which then enhances the chances of virality. The implication of this is that happiness makes us want to share.

A good example of this is the positive emotions felt during St Patrick’s Day. This is generally a very merry occasion and it is celebrated by 250 million people worldwide. To leverage this positive emotion, Guinness partnered with Guinness World Records on a viral marketing campaign to make 17 March 2012 the friendliest day of the year. They reached 7 million consumers and gained 141,000 new Facebook fans.

Anger and Disgust

Anger makes us stubborn and disgust is meant to be one of the most primal emotions in humans. Disgust is an instinct meant to prevent us from ingesting things that are harmful to us. That reaction evolved into actions that keep us doing things that were against the wishes of our kin group (which could prove dangerous in prehistoric times).

These emotions are therefore also “shareable” – it’s the reason that anytime you smell that your milk has gone off or the biscuits you bought are unpalatable you try to get other people to smell or eat them too.

An example of this was in 2013 when Ovo and Ecotricity rushed to exploit public hostility towards energy price hikes charged by four of the big six energy companies

Fear and Surprise

Fear and surprise enhance connections between people, which is why they are exclamatory emotions. What that means is that the emotion is often expressed externally in order to warn people around you. In prehistoric times, this would have helped the kinship group avoid danger. It also makes us desire something to hold on to if the worst were to happen.

In a study in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers found that people were more likely to feel affiliation with a brand present during a scary film, implying that fear can enhance brand loyalty. Just as a person would feel attachment to a person, they can feel attachment to a brand during periods of fear and surprise – which is linked to the amygdala, one of the oldest structures in human brain, in evolutionary terms.

This prank in café scared the heck out of customers, but was actually a promotion for the 2013 remake of the film Carrie. The video itself achieved 54 million views, but surely the people who were actually there will never forget it.

In the end, all viral campaigns have one thing in common — they elicit a strong emotional response from the people who see them. Without an emotional component, there’s nothing for people to hang on to, which means there’s nothing for them to share with friends or family.

What are your favorite viral campaigns? Share them with our readers in the comments section below.


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